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5 Ways to Stop Reliving Painful Memories

... and why just telling yourself not do it isn't enough.

Key points

  • Research shows rumination can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. 
  • Studies show that rumination raises the risk of developing substance abuse problems and eating disorders.
  • To stop rumination, one must become aware of one's thinking habits.
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While self-reflection is helpful, rumination is harmful. Dwelling on your problems, magnifying your misfortune, and hosting your own pity party only increase your distress.

Perhaps you replay a conversation you had with your boss over and over in your head, and each time you envision your discussion, you beat yourself up for something you said. Playing the same scene over and over again increases your fear that you said the wrong thing.

Or maybe you can't stop thinking about the names others called you as a kid. Those hurtful comments invade your mind whenever you meet new people or whenever you have a few minutes of silence. As you rehash those painful times, your self-confidence plummets, and hopelessness soars.

The Trouble With Ruminating

If you tend to be an over-thinker, you're not alone. It's a common problem that most people experience at one time or another. But dwelling on negative events and distressing emotions isn't good for you:

  • Dwelling on the negative leads to mental health problems. Research shows that the more you think about your hardships, mistakes, and problems, the more likely you are to experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.
  • Focusing on your problems causes mental health problems to last longer. The more you think about your problems, the harder it is to regain your psychological health.
  • Negative thinking is a hard cycle to break. Over time, rumination becomes a bad habit. It can become so ingrained that you'll have difficulty changing the way you think.
  • Brooding can lead to unhealthy coping skills. Studies show that rumination increases emotional distress, which raises the risk of developing substance abuse problems or eating disorders.

How to Stop

If you tend to dwell on your misery and beat yourself up for your mistakes, commit to changing the way you think. It takes practice and dedication to stop ruminating, but doing so will help you feel better and behave more productively.

1. Recognize when it's happening.

The more you ruminate, the more likely you are to get stuck in a negative cycle that is hard to break. Be aware of your thinking habits and pay close attention to the times when you keep rehashing and replaying painful events in your head. The quicker you notice it, the faster you can choose to think about something more productive.

2. Look for solutions.

Thinking about your problems isn't helpful—unless you're actively looking for a solution. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do about the situation. Commit to learning from your mistakes and solving your problems so you can move forward.

3. Set aside time to think.

Your brain needs a chance to process the things that go on in your daily life. Set aside 20 minutes each day to think, worry, or reflect. Put your "thinking time" in your schedule. When you notice you're worrying or ruminating outside of that scheduled time, remind yourself, "I'll think about that later."

Knowing you'll have a chance to think about a distressing topic at a later time can help you put it off. Sticking to your time limit will help you think about your problems in a more productive manner, while also preventing you from punishing yourself by rehashing your painful memories over and over again.

4. Distract yourself.

Telling yourself not to think about something could backfire—and cause you to think about it even more. The better way to distract yourself is to find a task that keeps you busy: Exercise, call a friend to talk about a completely different subject, or do a household project. Moving around will help you "change the channel" and prevent you from stewing over your distressing memories.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the key to living in the "here and now." When you're mindful, you'll be completely present in the moment. Like other forms of meditation, mindfulness takes practice, but over time, it can greatly decrease rumination.

To learn more strategies for navigating negative thoughts, pick up a copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

This article also appeared on Inc.

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